Blog | January 27, 2014 | Duncan Edwards


Making All Voices Count’s Research and Evidence Programme Manager Duncan Edwards, reflects on the first of a series of thematic discussions led by the Institute of Development Studies. This is part two in a summary of Making All Voices Count’s e-Dialogue focussed on: “Making – understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count.” Read part one here.

Let’s not reinvent wheels

Innovation shouldn’t mean new – participants recognised that innovation should be building on the work of others – explicitly not only technological, and not necessarily new, but perhaps adapted, or applied in a new context where appropriate.

The Making All Voices Count programme works to the following definition of innovation:

Innovation: the innovation component embodies a broad view of innovation. Besides the innovation of tools and products, this includes:

  • Exploration of a new idea or a new combination of ideas that can positively contribute to an improved feedback loop between government and citizens
  • A new approach to social accountability and feedback loops
  • A radical rethink of a current approach
  • The development of new products and services
  • Application of an existing model or approach in a new domain or sector

Hapee DeGroot talked about plans, evaluation, and source code should be shared more consistently and effectively to enable more scope for collaboration and building on the work of others. How much of this material makes its way into repositories where it might be accessible by other facing similar challenges? Which brings us to a key part of building on the work of others, learning.

Learning, success, and failure

We talked a lot about learning and the importance of learning from successes and failures. While there were differing views on where we are on a road to a culture of learning – it’s clear we need to really move further on this. Wayan Vota suggested the ‘Fail-faire’ approach seemed to be gaining traction in Washington DC in providing a space in which people could talk openly about failure. Much of the contestation on this was whether the incentives were right in terms of communicating our learning, particularly around failure. As Robert Hunja put it: “At the World Bank we talk a lot about accepting failure (we even held a fail fair a while back). However, all the work related incentives (recognition, resource allocation, stories, etc) subvert the goal of ‘failing forward’.”

But should we be celebrating failure? Ian Schuler suggested the aim should be to ‘work open’ so that “by exposing how we work we give others the opportunity to contribute and fix before a misstep becomes a failure. To do this we need to rework the way that we operate and collaborate. The competition that is created by the dominant methods of funding international development are stifling not encouraging the sort of collaboration that breeds innovation and effectiveness.”

Do we do sufficient monitoring, evaluation and reflection of our projects to really understand why they have succeeded or failed?

Framing things as ‘failures’ is not particularly helpful – in my mind very few projects are total failures, even if a project has not reached its objectives, there should have been learning to apply in the next iteration. Jaume Fortuny talked about “Funding the current and pre-funding the next. Is this a compromise beyond the failure?

Either way I think it is clear that we, practitioners, researchers, techies, funders, and activists, need to take responsibility for more effectively communicating our self-critical learning around these successes and failures. There is a scarcity of evidence in this area for a reason and we all need to think about our own role in that.

Is competition conducive to innovation?

There was a consensus that competition wasn’t particularly conducive to the surfacing of new ideas. Many participants experience of competitions and hackathons seemed to lack linkages to the problems that ‘solutions’ were aimed to address. Carlos Cortez explained “what is needed more is the Collaboration than Competition, collaboration between the people with less resources and with others, the civil organisations, governments. Collaboration could help them to have more capacity to innovate their ways to do, to promote change, to use the technology for this purpose and to redefine their relations with other actors (civil society, government institutions, private sector), in a more accountable and transparent.”

If a more collaborative process is desirable, can competition be used to foster collaboration? Philip Thigo described the Apps4Africa competition which looked to reward collaboration rather than the ‘solution’ – ideas were evaluated based on co-creation. This is an interesting model to explore but Philip raised some points to consider regarding the incentives for ‘innovators’ to engage in these co-creation approaches. Does a share of a small cash award provide sufficient incentive? Or is the incentive of attribution and increased publicity and opportunity what counts?

Context, scale, and sustainability

There is a broad consensus that context is important, what works in one context may not work in another. Brendan Halloran highlighted that “studies of social accountability interventions (by World Bank, Institute of Development Studies and Overseas Development Institute, among others) point to the importance of local contextual factors, political dynamics, windows of opportunity, and relationships between actors, behind the success of many efforts, rather than the impact of tools per se.

Brendan recognised that although “There are emerging, cross-cutting lessons about what is working, but it seems to be more around principles and concepts, not tools or technologies.” He also highlighted the tension between broad prescriptions and every case is unique.

Ken Banks talking about thinking about scale and sustainability crushing good ideas before they have an opportunity to be explored. Erik Hersman suggested we reframe some of this as experimentation so we are talking about more of a learning process than a development project which must hit specific log frame targets.

Project management and funding models

Inevitably when talking about how a programme such as Making All Voices Count might help to support the ‘right kind of innovation’ issues relating to funding models, project management, monitoring and evaluation were discussed.

Participants felt that traditional ways of providing financial support for innovation were a straitjacket and was actually more likely to supress efforts to do things in new ways. By the very nature of innovation as an emergent and iterative process, rigid tools such as logical frameworks (or at least the way in which they often used) were not the best ways of supporting innovation. Other approaches such as agile, and Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) were discussed as other possible project management which are perhaps more suited to programmes seeking to support emergent ideas.

If we recognise that log-frames aren’t conducive to innovation – on the one hand there is a need to provide support for new ways of looking at problems, while on the other, balancing the need for accountability by those who require this support. This is a key challenge for all of us.

List of participants: Alan Hudson, Alex Kelbert, Bartholomew Sullivan, Brendan Halloran, Carlos Cortez, Chris Underwood, Claire Schouten, Duncan Edwards, Erik Hersman, Erik Nijland, Evangelia Berdou, Giulio Quaggiotto, Hapee De Groot, Ian Schuler, Janet Gunter, Jaume Fortuny, Ken Banks, Linda Raftree, Lucia Abelenda, Matt Haikin, Mikel Maron, Patta Scott-Villiers, Philip Thigo, Remko Berkhout, Robert Hunja, Rosemary McGee, Stephen Davenport, Wayan Vota, Wouter Dijkstra.

This e-discussion took place as part of a week long discussion hosted by Making All Voices Count from 20-24th January, 2014 which explored:

• Making: understanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count
• All: the aim of inclusiveness in transparency and accountability (T&A) work, and within Making All Voices Count
• Voices: the expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability(in tech-for-T&A initiatives, mediated by technology)
• Count: government responsiveness to citizens’ exercise of voice

About the author

Duncan Edwards is the Programme Manager for Making All Voices Count’s Research and Evidence